Two Religious Feasts in November: All Saints and All Souls Day in Italy
November is inaugurated by two important religious feasts in Italy: All Saints Day and All Souls Day, November 1st and 2nd, respectively. These days are very important in the Catholic tradition and their roots can be found deep in the past.
All Saints Day (November 1st)
La Festa di Ognissanti, or the All Saints Feast, is a religious event celebrated in Italy on November 1st. This feast day celebrates all the saints of the Catholic calendar.
The origins of the feast date back to ancient times. In fact, since the very beginnings of primitive Christianity there are records showing that saints were celebrated on feast days. One example is writings that witness the dedication of the Pantheon of Rome by Pope Bonifacio IV on May 13 609 A.C. to Mary and all the martyrs, the very first All Saints Day.
Over the course of time the feast was moved to November 1st for reasons that are still unclear. There are claims that All Saints Day was moved to November by Alcuino, the counselor of Carlo Magno, so that the Church could Christianize the pagan feast of the Celtic New Year and so that the celebrations could last three days. Whatever the reason it was decided that the feast would take place in November and as of June 1, 1949, the Italian Constitution listed the day of Ognissanti as a public holiday.
All Souls Day (November 2nd)
This feast can be considered a direct consequence of the celebration of All Saints Day, and in fact directly follows the aforementioned feast, taking place every year on November 2nd. The direct link between the two days can be traced back to 998 A.C. when the Abbot Odilone of Cluny established that the day to remember the dead should follow the day celebrating all the Saints, mainly because it was believed that the dead could come into contact with the living.
It is also not surprising that Catholics chose to honor the dead during this time period. Many ancient civilizations celebrated the dead from October to November, likely owing to the fact that the coming winter was in direct contrast to the rebirth of spring. Moreover, the date of November 2nd is strictly connected to the day of the Deluge, as told in Genesis, and thus it is further believed the date was chosen to honor those who died in the flood, a way to exorcize the fear of new, similarly catastrophic events occurring.
Rituals and Popular Beliefs
All Souls Day has a common denominator in many parts of Italy: many believe that their dearly departed will visit them on that day. Even though it is a religious event, there are many popular traditions that remain alive to this day, which combine pagan elements with the Catholic.
There are rituals that take place in several parts of the country on this day, here are a list of some:
- Lombardia: In some parts of this Northern region, people put a bottle of fresh water in the kitchen so that the dead can quench their thirst.
- In Friuli, some leave out a lamp, a bucket of water and a little bread.
- In Veneto, people used to offer biscuits, known as the "ossi da morti" (the bones of the dead), to their lovers.
- In Trentino, bells ring to call the dead and the table is left set and the fireplace lit for the whole night.
- In Piemonte and in Val d'Aosta the tradition of a set table is quite widespread.
- In Liguria people used to cook broad beans and chestnuts and in the past grandparents used to tell scary stories.
- In Umbria people use to cook cakes known as Stinchetti dei Morti (the shins of the dead), in order to ease the sadness of this day.
- In Abruzzo, lamps are left lit and the table is left set while children go to bed with a bag of broad beans and confections to symbolize the link between the past and present generations.
- In ancient times Romans used to eat lunch next to the grave of their relatives in order to keep them company.
- In Sicily people let kids believe that if they pray and they are good they will then receive gifts from dead people.
Whether these beliefs are true or not the day of All Souls represents an important feast honoring loved ones who have passed. A little bit religious and a little bit pagan the true essence of this feast includes visiting cemeteries and remembering the dearly departed. Together, All Saints Day and All Souls Day are important dates on the calendar for Catholics and Italians alike.